POSTSCRIPT / February 17, 2002 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Embassy is now talking of US bases. What’s up?

WATCH THAT TERM!: Ooops! Be careful with those terms! The encampments of US forces in the South are now being called “bases.” With a few missteps, that tricky term could just find itself into official communication and — boom! — ignite a full-blown controversy.

We have been saying all along that US forces are coming for Balikatan under the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement that, according to the Supreme Court, does not violate the constitutional ban against “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities” (Section 25, Article XVIII.)

The reason for the SC ruling is that the ban refers to permanent basing of troops (reminiscent of Clark and Subic under the RP-US Bases Agreement) and not to mere presence of transient foreign military personnel.

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HINT OF PERMANENT STAY: With the casual use of the term “bases,” suppose in one official communication of Foreign Secretary Teofisto Guingona, who appears still learning the nuances of diplomatic practice, the term “US bases” crops up with reference to the American camps in Zamboanga and Basilan?

Imagine what would happen if this hypothetical letter were leaked or falls into the hands of the usual elements on the Left.

There should be care not only in the use of technical terms but also in reinforcing the contention of transient presence. There should never be any hint that the US troops are staying beyond the planned exercise.

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SIX MONTHS TEMPORARY?: Recall that there was a stir when it was announced that the US forces coming for the “Balikatan” military exercises were to stay for six months. American troops that participated in previous war games were here for much shorter periods.

Is a six-month presence a permanent stay? It’s really a matter of opinion, but you know how it is in these parts where everybody loves to appear smart enough to debate about anything.

Note that when a Filipino enters the US on a temporary visitor’s visa (such as for business or tourism), he is granted as much as six months upon his application at a US port of entry. Long before we started to debate the Balikatan issues, the US had already considered six months as a temporary stay for visiting aliens.

Anyway, the debate over the duration of stay died down, which means either we have accepted or have resigned to US troops staying for six months for the live-fire exercise right where an actual enemy operates.

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HOW TO CALL THE SITES: How will the Americans encamp? Will they build and secure their own bases? Those are not simple questions.

We have always avoided fueling speculations that the US is planning to set up military bases in this former colony all over again. We made a big show of having the GIs merely sharing space in the Southern Command headquarters in Zamboanga.

But to polluted minds, even a space-sharing scheme could be suspect. Recall the turnover of US bases (e.g. Clark and Subic) to the Philippine government with much ceremony more than a decade ago.

The sites started to be called Philippine bases with a reduced area within the base set aside as a US facility. The Philippine flag started flying over the bases (never mind if there was the Stars and Stripes beside it) and a Filipino general assumed the title of base commander (never mind if you sometimes spotted him buying Stateside liquor, cigarettes and chocolates at the base PX).

Despite the use of the term “facility,” the general impression remained that they were still US bases. Hence the inclusion of “facilities” in the constitutional ban.

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PINATUBO INTERVENED: The colonial cobwebs have not been completely cleared despite the lapse of time since Mt. Pinatubo intervened in 1991 and erupted in Olympian fury to send the Americans scampering out of the bases.

Now American troops are back in different circumstances. With a terrorist group rampaging in barbaric fury in the Sulu-Basilan area, we find most reasonable Filipinos welcoming American troops with an open mind, if not open arms.

Still, we have to watch our casual language, since the technical language of the Constitution and its section on the banning of foreign bases and troops have not been changed.

By our loose use of terms, we may get embroiled all over again in political and legal issues surrounding Balikatan and set back the timetable. Continued and uncontested use of the term “bases” to refer to the areas reserved for the Americans may implant the idea of US bases sprouting again in strategic places.

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PALAFOX ON RIGHT TRACK: That was why we were relieved when we read about Philippine Army spokesman Capt. Facundo Palafox dismissing speculations that the US Army Special Forces who had just completed training in Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija, were to proceed to Basilan to join the hunt for Abu Sayyaf terrorists.

“In the next few days, at the most one week,” he said, “they will return to the US.”

The idea of American forces coming and going should be maintained to sustain the claim of their presence being temporary and to preempt charges that the US is out to use local security problems to set up bases.

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EMBASSY SEES BASES: We were intrigued by a statement of US embassy charge d’affaires Robert Fitts yesterday that the US forces would initially stay in the Southcom headquarters and “could travel, in a month or so, to several smaller bases staffed by 80-man companies, at least two kilometers from any likely clash.”

“Later, they would observe Filipinos at smaller bases, still out of combat but with increased risk,” Fitts was further quoted as saying in a STAR story. We were at the edge of our seat when we read and reread his statement.

First, he was already talking of “bases.” Although he probably meant camps or posts, he was using the term “bases” unmindful of its sensitive political implications. (We won’t be surprised if some of the anti-American elements in town looking for something to chew on jump on that reference.)

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U.S. WADING INTO COMBAT: Then Fitts gave a clue as to the escalation of the military operation. The US forces will move to Basilan in company-size teams and set up several bases at least two kilometers from an anticipated battle zone.

Two kilometers is very close for non-combat “advisers” in a setting where the enemy could be anywhere in the surrounding wooded terrain.

It’s clear to us by that candid account of Fitts that the Americans will be right there virtually in the middle of the expected engagement. In the context of repeated statements of the Americans that they are ready to take casualties, we see Americans wading into a real war.

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CLARIFYING OUR STAND: We have received mail from readers who seem to be under the impression that we are against the entry of American troops into the Basilan conflict just because we highlighted the arrogant antics of GIs in civvies waving high-powered rifles outside a bank in Zamboanga.

To clarify: We are in favor of the entry of US troops to help our soldiers finish off the Abu Sayyaf. We take this position regardless of what the VFA and other bilateral pacts with the US say or do not say. We just want them to come and help — and we would be happy and grateful if they succeed.

But to insulate this special operation from extraneous issues, we want to see a speedy and vigorous campaign that would leave no doubt about the wiping out of the Abu Sayyaf and whoever would commit the mistake of siding with that terror gang.

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QUICK KNOCK-OUT: We understand the seemingly slow preparations — the training and getting-to-know-you preliminaries, the phased bringing in of men and materiel, the setting up of camp sites and forward posts, et cetera.

We imagine that after all that elaborate planning and preparation, plus the intelligence gathering (by this time, we’re sure they know where the enemy is), there would follow a rapid all-out strike.

The Abu Sayyaf must be dealt a quick one-two knockout punch. The fighting should be over before the terrorists, their allies and the anti-American elements in Manila could even think of their next move.

There should be no time for the Abu Sayyaf to come up for air or for their allies to jump in to their rescue. If the RP-US forces allow the campaign to drag on, it will become too costly and too complicated to manage. And we don’t want Basilan to be the beginning of another Vietnam.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 17, 2002)

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